*All images courtesy of Frank H. Woodward
My first trip to Ireland made me a believer again.
The Emerald Isle entered my system long before I was lucky enough to visit the place. My high school English teacher had a thing for James Joyce. That meant my senior year was all about PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, DUBLINERS and, as a cautionary exercise, a glimpse into ULYSSES and FINNEGAN'S WAKE. (English majors know why we only peeked. You can ask them about the all consuming madness that comes from actually reading those dense tomes).
One of the other Irish writers we read that year was James Synge. Synge wrote a play called RIDERS TO THE SEA. The story was set in the harsh terrain of the Aran Islands, three wedges of limestone off the west coast of Ireland known for penitent priests and doomed fishermen. Tragedy was a regular occurrence there, just like wind, rain and suffering. So much so, the women used unique stitching in the wool sweaters they crafted for their husbands, so they could identify their bodies when they washed ashore.
All this stuff about stitches is a myth, of course. Ireland is full of stories equal parts true and untrue. Others are just too beautiful to question. The country is so overflowing with tales it inspires outsiders to write their own. That's what happened to me. My second, serious attempt at a spec script was a romance set on those same Aran Islands. This was nearly 10 years after high school. Ireland had been brewing inside me for that long.
There soon came some interest in that spec so I used that as an excuse to finally visit the country I only knew from books. My first trip would be part business, part discovery.
I decided to land in the West. Galway. Kerry. Killarney. Dingle. This was where old traditions still lived and breathed. The Celtic and the Catholic.
Ireland was (and still is) very Catholic. That posed no problem for me. I was raised Catholic and even though I was well on my way to Atheism, I knew how to speak the lingo. Catholicism was also one of the few religions that allowed you to believe in god and monsters. This was good for the Celtic side of Ireland because there were many people who still believed in the wee folk. They actually left saucers of milk out for the odd, passing faerie. What an intriguing mix!
My first destination was Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands. The place is roughly 12 square miles. You can walk most of it in a day if you're up for the hike, but that will cheat you of such great finds. Crumbling, cliffside forts built by pagans against invaders. Stone domed huts built by priests for cramped retreats meant to test their faith in uncomfortable ways. Blatantly displayed currachs and tackle that spoke to the island's fishing history and to its one brush with cinematic fame, the Robert Flaherty “documentary” MAN OF ARAN (another Irish story that was more myth than fact).
You can actually feel the history in those places. There's a psychic residue unlike any I've felt in any other country. Possibly because Ireland, as I said before, is a land of believers. That much belief in one area is bound to create a tangible memory. Call it spirits, vibes, or neurons... you are keenly aware of this energy field and there is no immunity to it.
To broaden my first Irish experience, I chose to stay at Mainistir House, a quaint hostel with en suite rooms, international guests and one of the best vegetarian meals I have ever had. It's still there (as is the dinner), so make sure to visit. Mainistir House is a little less than half way along the island. Around it are humble homes and farmhouses. The nearest collection of pubs is a good 10 minute walk.
During the day, the path is clear. At night, however, that path is pitch black.
There are no street lamps on Inis Mór unless you're in a town center. Most of the houses are set off the road, too, so you can't depend on their porch lights for much. That meant the bulk of my walk to and from the pub was in darkness.
Allow me to clarify... we city folk have seen many dark corners, but thanks to light pollution there's always a glow to go by. Even in the country, the stars and moon can light the way. The road I was walking was primordial. You couldn't see your hand before your face. All you had to guide you was the quickly failing light from town, the sound of surf to the East and memory.
It was dark, but I wasn't scared. This wasn't New York. No one here was looking to mug me. Nor were there any beasts to worry about. As my host told us upon arrival, “Anything wanting to take a bite of you like bears, snakes or wolves had long since been driven out of Ireland.” There was nothing to fear. Nothing but enchanting sounds and sensations.
I could hear the sea. Taste the salt. Feel the wind. This was what night must have been like for early men who walked this plane... only they had the threat of spirits.
My mind drifted to those spirits. I could already feel them dragging the chains of history behind them. That's when I heard it. A dirge-like whistling coming from the hills. Being a rational man, I knew at once what it was. It was the wind blowing through gaps in those rocky fence lines you see all over the country.
If I was a believer, however, I'd feel it was the banshee. The fabled harbinger of death. Her keening could only be heard on the nights someone was about to die. How cool would it be to see a banshee?
A banshee always appeared as a woman. All tales agreed on that. But what kind of woman? Would she be so stunning that I'd fall under her spell or would she look so horrid that I'd turn to stone? Either end would not be a good for me.
There it was again! That chilling wail! I pictured the banshee running a comb through her spectral red hair (Why a comb? I don't know. Ask the ancients!). Her pale skin glowing in the night. Her slack jawed mouth uttering cries of anguish.
My pace had suddenly increased. I wasn't running. I just wanted to make it to the next point of light. Just ahead about 100 feet. By the turnout where I remembered seeing a roadside altar to the Virgin Mary.
Here I was, a grown man, fearing the ghost of death. Not quite running for the safety of Mother Mary. Another feminine spirit.
Why was I in such a hurry? Surely banshees were a myth. They never existed. But that howling was real and it was closer now. Higher in pitch and intensity. I saw the bend ahead. One light above the frozen mother of Christ. Sanctuary. Now I ran.
Another light exploded in my eyes! I was blind, but only for a second. It was a pair of Germans I met at the hostel. They had the presence of mind to carry a flashlight on their way to the pub. That light broke the spell.
Oddly enough, it also silenced the howling. The wind was still blowing, but that somber wail was gone. Was it driven away by the Germans' light? I never pondered it till now and even as I type these words, I don't really want to know.
I went on to have a magical trip in Ireland's West, made even more so because my mind remained open after that night. The spirit of the banshee woke me. I've been back twice since then to visit my adopted land and while both trips were enjoyable, they were also lacking a bit in mystery and magic. I still feel the spirits (how can you not visiting Newgrange?), but, like the wee folk, once glimpsed they go into hiding. And they are expert hiders. It's enough to know they exist in a special part of me. I just hope they don't pop out on a cold, dark All Hallows' Eve. I'm not sure my belief could take that.
Frank H. Woodward is a Los Angeles-based film director, producer and writer. He's also a believer... To check out one of his latest short films, Balloon, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xbQQK3SB7o